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Arteriovenous Malformation

An arteriovenous malformation (AVM) is a tangled, enlarged mass of blood vessels that happens because of abnormal connections between arteries and veins. AVMs don’t always cause symptoms, but may bleed or rupture and can lead to stroke.

At the UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute, our vascular surgeons are experts in treating AVMs. We diagnose and treat AVMs in all areas of the body outside the brain and spine.

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What is an Arteriovenous Malformation?

Your vascular system includes your arteries, veins, and capillaries.

Arteries carry blood away from your heart, bringing oxygen and other nutrients to your organs and tissues. Blood then flows through very small vessels called capillaries into your veins, which bring the blood back to your heart.

An arteriovenous malformation (AVM) happens when arteries and veins connect directly to each other, rather than through capillaries. This creates a tangled, enlarged mass of blood vessels and abnormal blood flow.

AVMs are most common in the brain and spine but can happen anywhere in the body.

AVM causes

The cause of an AVM is unknown. They're often present from birth, though they aren't hereditary (passed down in families).

AVMs are rare but can affect both men and women of all races.

Risks of AVM

The greatest risk of an AVM is bleeding, which may be life-threatening.

Cerebral (brain) AVMs can lead to stroke, which may cause permanent disability or death.

Arteriovenous Malformation Symptoms and Diagnosis

Symptoms of AVMs

Most people with arteriovenous malformations (AVMs) have no symptoms.

In people who have symptoms, those symptoms can vary based on the location of the AVM.

Some AVM symptoms can include:

  • Headache
  • Weakness
  • Seizures
  • Pain
  • Problems with speech, vision, or movement

Diagnosing AVMs

In many cases, doctors diagnose an AVM incidentally — often through a CT scan or MRI — during treatment for another condition.

Your vascular surgeon may also perform an angiogram. An angiogram uses a catheter and special x-rays to find the location and severity of the AVM.

Arteriovenous Malformation Treatment

Treatment for arteriovenous malformations (AVMs) varies based on each person’s:

  • Overall health
  • Symptoms
  • AVM size and location

AVM treatments can include:

  • Medicine to help manage pain and other symptoms, though this does not treat the AVM itself.
  • Endovascular embolization — a catheter-based procedure that safely blocks blood flow to damage the AVM and cause it to close.
  • Radiosurgery — using a beam of radiation to damage the AVM and cause it to close.
  • Open surgery to remove the AVM. 

Learn more about AVM treatment

Follow the beat for a healthier life. Visit the UPMC HealthBeat blog to learn about radiosurgery treatment options.